In many places online we can find the statement that St Nicholas of Myra – the basis for Santa Claus – was present at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, where he punched Arius in the mouth. So … is it true?
Unfortunately we have almost no historical information at all about any St Nicholas of Myra – our information is entirely based on Saint’s Lives of him, of which the earliest are 9th century, and the latest are modern compilations based on medieval collections. All these Lives are really closer to folk-tales than to history, and they reflect the accumulations of popular legends. Some of them do have Nicholas attending the Council of Nicaea; but they do not contain the story of Nicholas punching Arius.
The main collection of source materials about Nicholas is by Gustav Anrich, and in this I found what I suspect is the answer.
Before I look at the data, let’s summarise what it says. Sometime in the middle ages, the story about his attendance at Nicaea was “improved” to show him slapping “an Arian”. Over time, this turned into a story about him slapping Arius himself. The story is now a standard item in Greek Orthodox tradition, and is embedded in their handbook of icon-painting.
On to the data.
In Anrich volume 1, p.459, in the section devoted to testimonia, there is an extract from a Latin text (!) by a certain Petrus de Natalibus, a Venetian. Petrus in 1370 was bishop of Equilio (Jesolo) near Venice, and died around 1400. The text of his work reads:
Fertur beatum Nicolaum jam senem Nicaeno concilio interfuisse et quemdam Arrianum zelo fidei in maxillam percussisse ob idque a concilio mitra et pallio privatum extitisse; propter quod ut plurimum sine mitra depingitur. Sed dum aliquando missam beatae virginis, cujus erat devotus, in pontificalibus celebraret et privationem mitrae et pallii defleret quasi zelo nimio fidei ablata: ecce, cunctis videntibus, duo angeli eidem astiterunt, quorum unus mitram, alius pallium sibi divinitus restituerunt. Et extunc insignia reassumpsit sibi caelitus restituta.
It happened that saint Nicholas, now an old man, was present at the Council of Nicaea, and out of jealousy of faith struck a certain Arian in the jaw, on account of which it is recorded that he was deprived of his mitre and pallium; on account of which he is often depicted without a mitre. …
This tells us that the story had arisen by whenever Petrus wrote these words – it is really difficult to find much about him! -, and was known in the West, or at least in Venice. So it probably had existed for some time at that point. But at this point it is not Arius himself – only “a certain Arian”.
The next piece of data is an extract from a biography by an obscure Damaskenos Monachus, written in the second half of the 16th century. Apparently he lived in the second half of the 16th century, and may (or may not) be identical with the man of that name who was Bishop of Liti and Rendini in 1564; and Metropolitan of Naupaktos and Arta in 1570. He composed a biography of St Nicholas of Myra, based on earlier accounts, which he included in his Thesaurus. The oldest edition of his work was printed in Venice in 1570. Anrich obtained this information from E. Legrand, Bibliographie hellenique II (1885), p.12 f., which contains little more than you have above.
Anrich states that the Vita of Damaskenos is a vulgarisation of the Vita by Simon Metaphrastes, who created the standard Greek hagiographical texts in the 11th century. I don’t know if any edition of Damaskinos can be found online?
Anrich gives the Greek of the extract. Yesterday I posted this, and an appeal for a translation. A kind corrrespondent obliged:
Damascenos the Monk: Life of saint Nicholas the wonder-worker: Large collection of lives of saints, or “Great Book of Saints” by Const. Chr. Doukakis. Athens, 20 December, 1896, pages 171-190.
10. p.179-180. After the king seated himself on the throne, one hundred and fifty nine fathers seated themselves at either side of him, both they and Arius arguing with much unease. Saint Nicholas, noticing that Arius was about to quash all the archpriests and moved by divine zeal, rose up and gave him a slap that shook all his members. Complaining, Arius says to the king: “O most just king, is it fair, before your royal highness, for one to strike another? If he has something to say, let him speak as the other fathers do; if he is ignorant, let him remain silent as his like are. For what reason does he slap me in the presence of your highness?” Hearing this, the king was greatly disappointed and said to the archpriests: “Holy archpriests, it is the law, that whosoever raises his hand before the king to strike someone, that it should be cut off. I leave this to you, so that your holiness(es) might be the judge.” The archpriests replied, saying: “Your majesty, that the archpriest has acted wrongly all of us confess it; except that we beseech you, let us unstate him now and imprison him, and after the dissolution of the council, we shall then convict him.”
Having unstated and imprisoned him, that night Christ and the Holy Mother Theotokos appeared in prison and said: “Nicholas, why are you imprisoned?” And the saint replied: “For loving You”. Christ then said to him: “Take this,” and gave him the holy gospel; the Holy Mother Theotokos gave him the archpriestly omophorion (scapular). The next day some acquaintances of his brought him bread and they saw that he was freed of his fetters and on his shoulder he was wearing the omophorion, while reading the holy gospel he was holding in his hands. Having asked him where he found them, he told them the whole truth. Having learnt of this, the king took him out of the prison and asked for forgiveness, as did all the others. After the dissolution of the council, all the archpriests returned home, as did saint Nicholas, to his province.
This is the earliest text known to me, and evidently to Anrich, which records Nicholas punching Arius.
Die Darstellung der Nicaea-Episode stimmt mit den Angaben des Malbuches (unten S. 463,15 ff u. 33 ff); die nur in den Hauptzügen mit diesen beiden stimmende Dartellung von Petrus de Natalibus beweist, daß der Grundstock der Legende mindestens ins 14. Jh. zurückgeht.
The presentation of the Nicaea episode is consistent with the information provided by the Painting book (below, p 463, 15 et seq u 33 et seq.); since only the more significant features of these two versions agree with the story as given by Petrus de Natalibus, this shows that the foundation of the legend goes back at least to the 14th century.
The “Painting book” (I don’t know the English name of this work: in German it is the Malbuch) is the 18th century manual of iconography from Mount Athos, produced by Dionysius of Foura. This gives the legends to be attached to icons. The first reads as follows:
“The holy and ecumenical 1st Synod in Nicaea….
And Arius, standing, also in hieratic vestment, and standing before him, Saint Nicholas with arm outstretched to slap him.”
The second one says:
“The saint in prison, receiving the gospel from Christ and the omophorion from the Holy Mother. – Prison, and at the centre is the saint and Christ at his right holding a gospel; at his left the Theotokos holding an omphorion: they are giving these to him.”
The presence of the item in the Handbook shows that the topic is a standard one for icons. So we may presume that the story reaches us today from Greek Orthodox sources, for whom it is a traditional motif, depicted in their churches.
Here is an example of the scene in a fresco from the Soumela monastery (via Livius.org):
To summarise again: there is no ancient evidence whatever that St Nicholas punched or slapped Arius at the First Council of Nicaea. The story is not found in any text before the late 14th century, and even that one mentions only “a certain Arian”. In the next two centuries the legend mutates into Nicholas slapping Arius; and is then disseminated in works of popular fiction, and by the paintings of icons. It has no historical basis whatever.
UPDATE: I am advised that ράπισμα means slap, not punch. My correspondent adds: ” it was a slap intended to shock Arius back to his senses”.
- G. Anrich, Hagios Nikolaos: Der Heilige Nikolaos in der Griechischen Kirche, 2 vols, 1913. Accessible to Americans at Hathi Trust.↩
- Anrich gives a reference: Petrus de Natalibus, Catalogus sanctorum et gestorum eorum ex diversis voluminibus collectus, Lugduni 1508, Fol. VII. The English title appears to be Legends of the Saints. Various editions are present on Google Books. In the 1543 edition, the text is on folio Vb, at the top of the right-hand column.↩
- Translation is mine.↩
- This volume can be found online at Google Books, but not without considerable effort. It is here (US only).↩